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Thursday, June 3, 2010


Once the boys were in high school, I would drive them, frequently before commuting out to Amherst. One morning, as I was pulling away from the circular driveway, there was a frantic honking from the car behind me. The driver got out and ran up to my car. It was Bob Nozick, whose son and Patrick were classmates. Bob cried, "I knew it had to be you, as soon as I saw the license plate!" We chatted for a bit and I allowed as how I should have gotten a "Question Authority" bumper sticker to go with it. Many years later, very near the tragically earlier end of his life, Bob taught Patrick in an undergraduate course at Harvard. Bob and I were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but I liked him enormously. Who could help but like him?

Brandeis and Boston University had been busts, but in the Fall of 1982, a possibility arose from a quite unexpected quarter. I got a call from the New School for Social Research, in lower Manhattan. The New School is a fascinating institution. It was founded in 1919 by socialists, and in 1938 created a University in Exile for European Jews fleeing Hitler. That body eventually evolved into the Graduate Faculty, which under one name or another continues to the present day. Over the decades, the great scholars who had formed the core of the faculty of the University in Exile grow old and retired or passed away. The Graduate Faculty, which had six doctorate granting departments, began to lose its luster, and in the case of some departments shrank until it was unclear whether their faculty was large enough and strong enough to survive. New York State, which periodically reviews and re-certifies institutions granting advanced degrees, officially warned the New School that unless it substantially strengthened several of the departments its certification would be withdrawn.

Faced with the choice of rebuilding the Graduate Faculty or closing it, the Board of the New School brought in a new President, Jonathan Fanton, with a mandate to rebuild the Graduate Faculty and return it to its former distinction. In the Fall of 1982, with the memory of the Brandeis and B. U. affairs fresh in my memory, and with the situation in the UMass Philosophy Department as bleak as ever, I was invited to teach a course at the New School and to talk with them about taking over the chairmanship of the Philosophy Department. The New School was an odd duck among American universities. Despite the distinguished history of the Graduate Faculty, it had taken to teaching almost all of its courses in the late afternoon or evening, as though it were an adult education program. By the early 80's, many of the people on its instructional staff were drawn from the New York area universities as moonlighters. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea of actually being part of a program in which I would be central, not peripheral, respected, not despised. So on Mondays and Wednesdays, I would drive out to Amherst and teach an Intro to Philosophy course and a graduate seminar on Formal Methods in Political Philosophy, and on Thursdays I would catch the shuttle from Logan to LaGuardia, take a cab to Washington Square, and teach a course on the Philosophy of David Hume.

The offer from the New School, when it finally came, was extraordinary: Chairmanship of the Philosophy Department, Professorships in the Departments of Political Science and Economics, and a salary $30,000 more than my UMass pay. It was a dream offer, tailored to my particular interests and accomplishments. I would be in a position to recruit an exciting group of philosophers, and to craft a powerful interdisciplinary doctoral program integrated with radical economists and progressive political scientists. It would be the first time in my career that I had actually been hired because of who I was and had become as a scholar and an intellectual.

The only problem with the position was that it would require me to be away from home three days a week at a minimum, and with my sons still in high school, that made me very uneasy indeed. The longer term prospect of committing myself to a commute did not really concern me, I confess. Because of my hesitations, I decided to take the offer to the Department to see what they would say. I gave a copy of the letter to Mike Jubien, who was then Head. Several days later, he called me at my home in Belmont. "The senior members have met," he said. [He meant the members of the majority -- Bob Ackerman never heard about the supposed meeting.] "We discussed the New School offer, and we think you should take it." And he hung up. I was furious, and insulted. But I refused to slink away, tail between my legs, even if the position to which I was going was far better than any I could ever hope for at UMass. I called Toby into the living room and asked him to sit down. I told him what was going on, and then I said to him, "Toby, I want you to remember this moment, and I want you to learn from it. When someone treats you badly, you don't run away. You stay and fight."

The next day, I made an appointment to see the Provost, a smart, savvy, attractive man named Loren Baritz, who had come to UMass from heading up NYU's Humanities Institute. Baritz's first response when I told him about the offer was surprising and refreshing. He said, "Congratulations." Then he said, "What can we do to keep you?" had my list of demands all set, and I rattled them off. "First of all, I want you to match the salary." "I will raise your salary by ten thousand. How is that?" I said it would do. Money wasn't really what was driving me away from UMass.

"Second, I want a doctoral program in the Philosophy Department that I can be a genuine part of. I and several others in the Department have been systematically excluded from any real role in graduate education. I want a doctoral program in Social and Political Philosophy." Baritz thought for a moment and said, "I will demand that the Department allow you to create such a program, and if they do not, I will remove the Head and put the Department in receivership."

"Third," I said, "I want a phone in my office."

"I can't do that," Baritz replied. He knew the limits of his power.

Baritz first sent Bob Ackerman and me to see the Dean of the Graduate School, Sam Conti, a smart, brash, no-nonsense guy for whom I have always had a soft spot. When Bob and I told him that we were effectively excluded from the graduate program in the Philosophy Department and that neither of us sat on a single doctoral committee, he told us he didn't believe us. But at UMass, it is the Graduate Dean who officially appoints all doctoral committees, so he had the records in his office. He did a quick check and came back, looking stunned. We were right. That base line established, he called a meeting of the members of the Department to tell them that they had to let us create a track in the doctoral program over which we would have control. Leonard Ehrlich insisted on broadening the scope of the program to include Recent Continental Philosophy as his price for joining our rebellion, and the four of us [Bob, Ann, John, and I] agreed. Fred Feldman assured Conti that there was no interest in those subjects among the students, and that the new variant of the program would be a non-starter, but Conti insisted, and fortunately the members of the majority were too inexperienced in the ways of the Academy to realize that Baritz' threat was really all bluff. The Philosophy Department was viewed as a success by the Administration. Indeed, some years earlier it had been declared one of three "centers of excellence" in the Faculty of Humanities and Fine Arts, a classification that guaranteed it special treatment when Teaching Assistantships and faculty lines were handed out. There was no way the Office of the Provost was going to put it into receivership. I thanked Jonathan Fanton graciously for the offer and stayed at UMass.

And so it came to pass that in AY 1982-83, The Alternative Track in Social and Political Philosophy and Recent Continental Philosophy was born. The AT, as it almost immediately came to be known, was not all that different in substance from the existing doctoral program. Our students would still have to take Logic and the History of Philosophy and all that good stuff. The difference was that our students would not be bullied and sneered at and told that what they wanted to do wasn't philosophy. Bob and I would run the program independently of the members of the majority. There was even some suggestion that we would get a share of the Teaching Assistantships.

There already were a handful of students in the Department who wanted to study with us, for all that they were, in the words of Isaiah, despis├Ęd and rejected. Phil Cox, Ed Rayher, Margaret Nash, a few others. But very quickly, things began to develop. Quite naturally, the establishment of the AT transformed the de facto divisions of the Department into a formal split. We stopped going to their parties and started having parties of our own. Bob and I alternated serving as the AGPD of the AT [which is to say, the Associate Graduate Program Director of the Alternative Track -- Fred Feldman clung like a limpet to the official title of GPD, and I think would rather have died than forfeit it.]

Inasmuch as the creation of the AT had been my price for staying at UMass, I quite naturally imagined that I would now have students eager to study Political Philosophy, but of course nothing quite like that happened. Oh, they all took my courses, even the ones that required them to tackle really difficult logic and mathematics. But their hearts belonged to Recent Continental Philosophy. I should have anticipated this, but I admit it caught me by surprise.

Quite the most astonishing result of the establishment of the AT was the transformation of Bob Ackerman. In one of the most extraordinary bits of mid-course correction that I have ever seen, Bob went from being a Philosopher of Science to being a scholar of Continental Philosophy, seemingly overnight. And I do mean scholar. Bob brushed up his German, which was already excellent, and started teaching Nietzsche and Hegel. He wrote a book on Nietzsche in a year or two. Bob taught himself Danish so that he could teach Kierkegaard. He flipped French word cards to prepare himself for teaching Derrida and Foucault. He very quickly made himself the indispensable core of the AT.

And students responded. To the surprise and dismay of Feldman, Chappell, Gettier, Sleigh, Jubien, Matthews, Robison, and the others, incoming students began to opt for the AT in increasing numbers. Within three years or so, fully half of the graduate students in the doctoral program were enrolled in the AT. Bob and I were swamped with students wanting us to direct their dissertations. I suppose I am so far from being an unbiased observer that my recollections have no evidentiary value whatsoever, but our students really did seem more alive than theirs. Our students seemed to be having more fun than theirs. I don't think our students were smarter than theirs, but they weren't dumber either. They simply had more juice.
Those were good years for both Bob and me. At long last, we had forged a real place in the Department that we could call out own. Neither of us had the slightest wish to "take over" the graduate program as a whole, nor did we have any missionary desire to convert the students of the majority to our way of thinking. It was obvious that what we were teaching was capable of drawing substantial numbers of students to our classes, and that was sufficient for us. There was one problem: we needed more faculty to handle the numbers of students signed up for the AT, but there was no way that the majority could permit that to happen. Indeed, at one point, during a time of budgetary constraint when departments were begging their Deans for permission to hire, the Department was actually authorized to recruit a political philosopher, and the majority chose to pass up the chance rather than run the risk that whomever they found would rat them out and join forces with us.

Our Alternative Track became one more element in a campus wide ferment of high powered leftwing thinking. The conversations in those days among colleagues were, I found, exciting, informed, sophisticated, and fluid. I had encountered nothing remotely like them at Harvard, at Chicago, or at Columbia. Rather than talk in general terms about what those days were like, I should like to give readers of this Memoir some concrete sense of the flavor of our conversations and debates those conversations by reproducing word for word a two page single-spaced memo that my colleague Ann Ferguson dashed off the morning after a meeting of a seminar conducted by Steven Resnick and Rick Wolff, the two Althusserian Marxists in the Economics Department. Resnick and Wolff, you will recall formed the core of the Althusserian wing of the Radical faction in the Economics Department, with Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis at the heart of the opposed faction. When I came across the memorandum in a folder I was leafing through to check something for these Memoirs, I sent Ann an email and got her permission to include it here. It is hurried and completely in the moment, making reference to things that both of them were aware of. Rather than try to explicate it, I will let it stand on its own as an example of the sort of collegial communication that was happening on the UMass campus. Ann became very friendly with Sam Bowles, as she indicates, and was on the Bowles-Gintis side of the divide in the Econ Department. The memo is dated Nov. 5, 1981. Here it is:

"Dear Steve and Rick, Very interesting seminar, albeit somewhat frustrating. Everyone has their own agenda, we don't know each others intellectual work very well. Thus, every seminar seems like attacking another tip of the iceberg, with so many assumptions undeveloped. I appreciate Rick's question about hostility at the beginning -- it's important to understand our political differences. I know about you guys only from the other camp in the Econ Dept, which perhaps unfairly types your political practice as "Class First" (altho it is admitted by all that no-one knows what you two really do for political practice outside the Dep't.) If I were to type my political practice it would clearly be an attempt to do Class, Sex and Race organizing equally; picket lines at strikes for Class, auton. Women's groups around reproductive rights for sex, etc. and working hard to find ways to make alliances with Third World groups and nasty sexist Black Nationalists on campus for race. This is fragmented politics but then the American left is so fragmented that what's to do? And besides, depending on one's criterion for class, it isn't even clear that there is (yet) a coherent American working class, given ethnic, racial, language etc. barriers, waves of immigrants and all -- like Marx on the French peasantry (see my enclosed paper).

A couple of points that would take a whole lot more talking. Thru political practice not on the theoretical level I've discovered that it is necessary to talk to people about their interests and how they'd be better realized by alliance with certain groups against certain groups, etc in order to bring about the elimination of structural situations (in capitalism, patriarchy, racial domination systems) which perpetuate exploitative relations between groups. Now, either your theory about this kind of talk is that it is necessary but ideological (in Althusser's distinction between ideology and "science"), or you are committed to some statement that suggests a relatively privileged (as opposed to absolutely privileged or anything-you-feel-like relativism) position in this sense: given these interests of these groups I identify with (which may be entirely system-constructed), this group would be better off, would be more likely to meet/get/achieve these interests if the adopted my analysis/entry point and concrete (empirical, contextual) analysis of the relevant social groups and their relationships and understood in this context who their enemies really are: This isn't [Rick] Wolff's absolute correspondence theory; it isn't an absolute (i.e. unchanging) distinction between appearance and reality: on the other hand, it isn't the "I like ice cream" variety of relativism either. This is what I meant by the feeling that your epistemology lacks a way to understand/posit revolutionary values. You may not agree with this but I think any political organizing implied an assumption of shared values and a way to achieve them better. It may not be possible to prove/disprove a sceptic or an "I like ice cream you don't" relativism, but the language of politics implies (I think) some kind of intersubjective test of whether a political change has been successful in meeting the group you identify with's interests. In fact, your language in the epistemology paper (e.g. the distinction between thought-concretes and concrete-reals) assumes a distinction between appearance and reality. You may not want to use the concept of "empiricism" as it has been used in the history of philosophy, but in fact David Hume in that terminology is labeled an empiricist, and he did not hold a correspondence theory. In fact he held that what existed was a collection of sense-appearances in the mind, and then some mental operations of abstraction which collected these together into general concepts. He thus rejected the appearance/reality distinction, and in some terminologies is called an idealist for that reason. Hume was the intellectual giant who was the forerunner in important ways of the Vienna Circle positivist school. Interestingly enough, his analysis of morality as collections of feelings also can be said to connect to the positivist's tendency to assume statements about sensible appearances are factual while moral claims are emotional, thus not "scientific." But he also in a contradictory tendency posited an ideal observer theory: what "good" means is what a fictive rational, well informed person would like in X situation, which is the precursor of the American pragmatist "convergence" theories first suggested by C. S. Peirce -- and probably the tradition that informed Jan Dizard's comments last night.

In any case, Hume's empiricism holds there is no distinction between appearance and reality, and obfuscates the distinction between idealism and materialism. So your claims about two interlocking processes, Thought-concretes and concrete-reals he would regard as "metaphysical" garbage, and in fact a version of the correspondence theory.
I enclose this paper of mine written in 1976 and printed in a collection of essays about the Ehrenreich's "New Class" PMC theory, Pat. Walker, ed Between Labor and Capital, South End 1978. I still essentially agree with the view I espouse in that paper although I've since developed a more extensive "Dual Systems" theory like Heidi Hartmanns, as is shown by Nancy Folbre and my paper in Sargent, ed Women and Revolution, South End, 1981, "The Unhappy Marriage of Capitalism and Patriarchy". As you will see by the footnotes, I have done a lot of talking to Sam Bowles about this stuff. However, we disagree a lot: he wants to substitute Domination relations for Exploitation relations as the basic primitive. I'm not convinced, especially since all he can say to object to my arguments that women are exploited not just oppressed is that there is no way to make the distinction between necessary and surplus labor without markets (thus not in the family!) Which cuts out understanding necessary/surplus labor in feudal, slave etc. economies. Anyway, as you can see, hopefully, the paradigm I presented last night of the Radical Feminist approach to understanding feudalism is not mine! I think we need two (and possibly three, I still haven't figured out how to handle race) points of entry to understand the complex interactions and contradictions between exp0loitative sex/affective production systems and other material systems of production.

One last point re overdetermination: One can believe in overdetermination without adopting your kind of relativist stance. One can disagree about points of entry and principles of change/tendencies in social totalities without adopting your kind of relativist stance. You've said yourself that E. P. Thompson's epistemology doesn't affect his concept of class or his concrete analysis of the British WC history. So, if there is only a contingent (accidental) and not logical connection between one's epistemology or methodology and the concrete historical analysis one gives, why in fact should those students in the Economics Dep't worry about epistemology?

Cheers, Ann

I am not going to suggest that broadsides of this length, sophistication, and intensity were being fired off daily, but it is obvious that Ann knows she can assume a level of ideological sophistication that on most campuses around the country would be extremely rare. When people ask me whether I am sorry, in the end, that I left Columbia for UMass, I try to explain that UMass was much more exciting intellectually than Columbia and much more politically sympatico as well. They always look dubious, but I have never had any doubt.


Matt said...

It's sad in a way that you didn't take the New School job, though the reasons for that are clear. It's long seemed to me like a place that should be much better than it is, and perhaps you could have made it live up to the potential. (Several good philosophers have come from there, of course, [including one recently who was formally a grad student in econ], but my impression is that it's a hard place to be a grad student- lots and lots of students who take a really long time to graduate, very poor funding for the students, etc.) I think that it has constant money problems, and I doubt you could have changed that! But it still might have been interesting to see what you could have done with it.

Andrew said...

Agree with Matt. I finished up, when I switched to full time in six years: 1990-1996. GF was really neat 86-96. I had no idea that that you had the offer from the GF. You should have taken it!! :-)


Ann said...

Did you ever develop your own position on "Dual Systems" theory? Just curious.... :-)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dear Matt and Andrew, Things turned out well for me at UMass, as I indicate in upcoming posts, but I have always thought the New School job would have been extraordinary.